Rapidshare Science – Portal 2: Perpetual Testing Initiative

The perpetual testing initiative was a clever slice of free post-launch DLC for ‘Portal 2’ released in 2012 with this cute aperture science video/octopus to go with it. In its least fanfare presented way, it is a level editor, aimed at allowing any user to quickly an intuitively create ‘Portal 2’ test chambers, publish them to the steam workshop system, and easily subscribe to others. Yes, Valve had previously released a full dev kit for Portal (and if you want to see an excellent community made mod then check out Portal Stories: Mel), but this was all about the normal person with that spark of “oh, this would be a really interesting level” about them, but not the time to invest in learning a complicated developer environment… in a roundabout way I’m trying to say that I’m their target audience.

… and this isn’t my first foray into the world of level creation. I spent many hours as a teenager glued to my PC learning the intricacies of ‘Duke Nukem 3D’ level design. The build engine was, in many ways, just as accessible… although it involved messing around with sector effect sprites, sector tags, and hours of frustration in trying to get those damn subway cars to go where you wanted them to…

Portal 2 is one of the best candidate games I can imagine for this user-friendly level design experience. The game has already defined the idea of short puzzle-style levels, the aperture testing facility is intentionally constructed of repeating modular building blocks, and the interior colour scheme/theme is all pre-defined… handing the player the keys to a test chamber construction computer and saying “here are your tools, get to it” is the obvious progression.

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It’s a humble, but complete toolbox

On creating new chamber you are presented with a suitably cold, scientific… yet cute Aperture style interface with isometric view of a simple basic chamber containing three mandatory elements: it must have an entrance, exit, and large observation window. These cannot be deleted. From there, the toolbar on the left hand side of the screen provides the would-be Aperture engineer with access to each of the available features you can add; each one, once placed, can be edited using the right-click contextual menu to adjust its operation… and again that signature Portal charm shines through; from the little heart that appears when you make an element connection (eg. switch linked to a panel) to the exploded engineering view of each gizmo which appears during editing. The shape of the chamber can be molded by  dragging surfaces in or out and a quick tap of the ‘p’ button flips and selected surfaces from portalable to non-portalable (or visa versa). It does of course have limitations; do you want to make an entirely new portal campaign?… then this isn’t for you; have an idea for an interesting test chamber using standard elements? … come right in. The limitations keep this experience from edging into the overly technical ; there’s generally only ‘one way’ to do something and no-redundancy in the items with which the designer is provided (the only exception that springs to mind is the choice in cubes which can be standard, companion, or the mutated ‘frankencube’… Valve may have had some strong an backlash had the companion cube not been included).

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I really like these exploded views of each element

My own dabbling in the perpetual testing initiative has yielded five published chambers (four of which when it was first thrown to the world and one in this past week when I revisited it… hence this post…). Like everyone who played the ‘Portal’ games there were aspects to the chamber design that I liked and these are what I ended up trying to bring out in my chambers thematically. I enjoyed the higher proportion of portalable surfaces in the original portal that were missing in the sequel and the closer, claustrophobic, feel of those early footsteps in the Aperture facility… hopefully my published chambers reflect this. However these few chambers don’t convey the enjoyment I’ve had with the editor; to get a feel for that you’d need to see the long list of partially completed chambers and simple idea ‘sketches’ that populate my editor folder.

… the perpetual testing initiative has taught me that it’s easy to make a chamber, but hard to make one that works …

Even with the limited toolset pitfalls are everywhere; one of the first things a designer encounters are ‘trivial solutions’ which may explain why there are fewer portalable surfaces in the sequel. In the original, players weren’t familiar with the mechanics, and generally solved each of the chambers as intended… the trivial solutions didn’t occur until put into the challenge mode to solve in the fewest number of portals (one of my favorite of these is early one where you can ground-fling up in to the exit using only 2 portals for the chamber). By the time the sequel rolled around everyone knew how the mechanics worked, so the number of portalable surface had to be dropped to ensure players would solve the puzzles rather than teleport their way around them. As a junior employee in the chamber design department it’s amazing how often you think a chamber is watertight then play it only to find out that there is a super-simple way to complete it… or more embarrassingly (and more commonly) have this pointed out by a stranger on the internet…

The second pitfall is forgetting what he player can and can’t see; logical steps through the designers eyes arn’t clear if the player can’t see what they need to. Using windows is practically essential to ensure that the player knows that the switch they’ve just pulled opened a specific panel… and whilst on the subject, the observation windows and striplights are as important as any of the active gameplay elements. These light the level, not only creating atmosphere, but also guiding the player to the important points.

Third on our list is the ‘unsolvable’ scenario; looking at the number of chambers available online, I can only imagine how long players have been stuck in rooms or destroyed key chamber elements. Providing escape routes, well placed cube disperses, and panels that don’t crush things they’re not supposed to crush whilst keeping the puzzle intact is tricky work.

The final pitfall is an inability of a puzzle creator to gauge how difficult their own creation is; early on I put timed elements into some of my levels to increase the difficulty only to remove them later as feedback from some players reported it was too difficult even without the timers. Setting a puzzle and having people solve it is not something that most of us do on a daily basis and it’s a delicate balance getting it right.

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Finished.. sort of…

The perpetual testing initiative is a worthy addition to the Portal 2 experience – I’m blogging about it now because a chamber idea jumped me last week and I threw it together that evening. If you enjoyed the ‘Portal’ games, but have never hit that button then I recommend giving it a shot, if only to create your own epic faith-plate sequence…

… if you’re particularly interested then my own series of ‘Ice Station’ test chambers are available here… 

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